Most Americans think of slavery as a Southern institution, but for close to 200 years, New York City served as a centerpiece in the African slave trade.
Slavery was an important part of New York’s economy, as a new exhibition shows. “Slavery in New York,” a massive, $5 million undertaking by the New-York Historical Society, opens October 7 and runs through March 5.
Through documents, paintings, video and sculpture in over 9,000 square feet of exhibition space, the show focuses on just how vital slavery was to the building of the city and the state. Slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, but when the American Revolution began in 1776, the only city with more slaves than New York was Charleston, S.C.
“New York almost got an extra representative (in Congress) because it had so many slaves,” said Richard Rabinowitz, the show’s curator.
The exhibition is spread over multiple galleries and has 40 original documents, 100 artifacts and at least 400 reproduced images, such as maps and portraits, accumulated from collections around the world. It also has items from slave-holding households, like a pair of candlesticks and a looking glass from Mount Pleasant, home to one of New York’s most esteemed families, the Beekmans. And there’s a section where viewers can record their own impressions, as well as educational space for children.
“Slavery is not African-American history, slavery is American history,” said James Oliver Horton, professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University, who consulted on the show. “Every person is shaped by a culture that was made into what it became by various people and their various interactions. We’d be different people in a different culture if slavery had not happened.”
The story of slavery in New York unfolds over a period of two centuries, from about 1626 until July 4, 1827, when slavery was abolished in the state. It starts with the first Africans brought by the Dutch to what was then New Amsterdam.
The Dutch engaged in a system of half-slavery, meaning the Africans they forced to work for them could later be freed. One important document in the show is a centuries-old piece of paper, borrowed from the state library in Albany, that grants freedom to one of the slaves.
That system changed entirely when the British took over, after 1664. “The British create a much more severe regimen, we call it the tightening vise,” Rabinowitz said.
Roughly chronological, the exhibit proceeds to demonstrate how slaves became an everyday part of life — in 1703, 42 percent of New York households had slaves, compared to 6 percent in Philadelphia and 2 percent in Boston — and a lucrative business — between 1715 and 1740, 500 different merchants invested in slave voyages. That’s practically every merchant in business at the time, Rabinowitz said. Slaves did everything, from manual construction labor to agricultural work to household cleaning.
Organizers hope the show, which will not travel, brings out a wide audience and exposes a reality most people may not have known.
“It’s been a very important subject for scholars, and I think it’s time for this to be a part of the public dialogue,” Rabinowitz said.
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